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Massive jailbreaks in Mexico. Prison riots in Venezuela, and fires in Honduras. Latin America's prisons are overcrowded, out of control and ready to burst. In this in-depth series, GlobalPost goes inside some of the Americas' most violent prisons to investigate a correctional system that has gone horribly wrong.


Brazil: Rio shuts makeshift police-run jails

With official prisons overloaded, police turned anything from old buses to horse stables into detention centers. Now Rio de Janeiro is cracking down.

“For being a jail, the conditions here are great,” says a 46-year-old former car salesman accused of homicide who asked not to use his name. The father of four, who has been held in a police jail for nearly a year, has his own cushion on the floor of a room kept cool by fans. He plays video games and watches TV in the room, located below private conjugal visit areas.

He’s one of the select prisoners chosen for the faixina, which police say are prisoners who have earned their trust. He says he’d rather stay in this unit than go to a regulated prison. “For me it’s going to be really terrible.”

“Of course, because those are the faixina!” shouts another inmate, Antonio de Ednilson da Silva, 22, when asked why some prisoners say they want to stay. In the tranca, he claims 50 prisoners slept in a cell for 10 back to back. “They live in a room with air conditioning. We live in a sauna.” Journalists had recorded the tranca’s airless cells reaching 132 degrees in the Brazilian summer.

But both tranca and faixina prisoners say they will miss the loose rules for visitors; unlike the penitentiary system, where family members spend months in bureaucracy to take out visitors’ cards, the police here were lax on allowing visitors in and out.

Civil Police Inspector Ricardo Rocha, in charge of deactivating the Sao Gonçalo jail, says he and his colleagues are happy to be relieved of a duty that “stained” the police’s image through allegations of abuse and corruption.

“We know [the prisoners’] future is very hard. We know this doesn’t resocialize anyone. But that’s not our job,” says Rocha. “Our job is to keep them from running away.”

Whether a prisoner preferred to stay in the makeshift police pens or go to the official jails seemed to depend on his relationship with the police.

Last year, nine policemen and their associates were arrested in a crackdown by the state’s organized crime unit usually employed to dismantle police-affiliated militia squads. They were charged with gang formation and extortion inside Rio de Janeiro police jails.

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A frequent visitor who tracked Sao Gonçalo jail closely, who asked not to use his name in order to preserve his relationship with prison leadership, estimated that some $500,000 reais ($265,000 USD) in payments from relatives and associates of prisoners flowed into the jail each month.

Experts say the overcrowding comes from a lack of investment and political will to spend on new jails, and a slow justice system. Prisoners with rights to be on parole spend excess time behind bars. The government has tried to address this: From 2008 to 2010, the National Justice Council reviewed tens of thousands of prison records to find prisoners overstaying their sentences needlessly. They freed 21,000 in two years.

Brazil has also tried to reform some draconian laws that have kept more inmates locked up. An article in the country's strict 2006 law barred authorities from giving probation to detainees accused of drug trafficking from waiting for trial. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court struck down that article as unconstitutional.

Last year, Congress passed a law that says suspects cannot be detained while awaiting trial if the maximum penalty for their crime is under four years.

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But overcrowding is still worsening in Rio, precisely because of the closure of police jails.

“The government shut its eyes to the reality which the public knew about all along,” says Orlando Zaccone, a chief of police tasked with overseeing these jails as the movement to close them began. He says some in government thought that having dispersed, smaller jails made rebellions easier to control. “The government chose instead to have small concentration camps.”

Zaccone says the root of the overcrowded prisons is zealous incarceration. “In my experience, 70 to 80 percent of prisoners could be in society,” he adds.

One health worker in a custodial house, who asked not to use her name for fear of losing her job, described how her unit went from its capacity of 700 to 1,300 over the last year.

“Three leave and 60 come in. This happens every week,” says the worker.

Despite the increase of prisoners, she claims her supervisor prohibits raising the limit on turning water on for more than the five half-hour periods allotted for each cell of 130 people. She also says fans were taken out of the cells after supervisors alleged that detainees were hiding goods in them. “It’s becoming a human depository,” she adds.